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“The Marketplace of Ideas” by Louis Menand

Posted in Academia, American, Culture, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on June 8, 2010

Parents, friends, university professors, family members, esteemed colleagues, and new acquaintances: we are gathered here today to answer a very important question. Why did a young man who has been passionate about the study of history his whole life, who has majored in history in college, excelled in its study, and wanted nothing more than to teach and learn about the past for the rest of his life, decide not to go to graduate school?

Let me leave that question hanging in the air of the (empty) auditorium, shrug off the narcissism (it was me speaking about myself, in case anyone had hoped otherwise), and step down from the podium.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand tries to answer the question of how American universities (more specifically, the liberal arts departments of those schools) have become the weird places that they are. For those who pursued a liberal arts education at a large university and don’t agree that they are strange beasts, I present the following observation of Prof. Menand’s:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. (157)

Why? Menand, in his insightful book, answers the How? by tracing the history of the modern American university from its roots in the late-nineteenth century orientation toward research, through its gargantuan growth during the Cold War with the help of government funding, through the turbulent decades of the late-twentieth century and their epistemological crises (what are we doing this for? why are we here? and what right do we have?), to the current university that we see today.

But . . . Why? Why must a student devote nine years of his life to learn to think and talk in narrow ways, and then spend the rest of his life educating the public whose instincts (for better or worse, but usually for the better) cringe at the sound and sight of this narrowness? (more…)

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